Israel’s Health Ministry has called a halt to a new 2 million shekel ($587,000) advertising campaign for its HaMagen 2 app, which alerts users if they have been in close proximity to a confirmed coronavirus patient, after half of the users who downloaded it over the weekend later deleted it, Derech Eretz Knesset member Zvi Hauser said on Monday.
Speaking to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which he chairs, Hauser said that the campaign was pulled after about 50,000 of the 100,000 people who downloaded the app over the weekend decided not to keep it on their phones.
For his part, Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter, former head of the Shin Bet security service, said that the government couldn’t count on the public to take voluntary measures, and said the Shin Bet’s location tracking technology, which also alerts those who have been in the vicinity of a coronavirus carrier, is more effective.
The Health Ministry has attempted to understand why users are deleting the HaMagen 2 app. The Government Advertising Agency conducted a user survey via Google that indicated that the major objections to the app are its high level of cell phone battery use; the extensive registration process, which involves 8 different screens on Android devices and 12 on iPhones; and the large number of alerts that the app generates. The privacy issue was also raised by users surveyed.
“The issue of battery use has been known for some time,” said Sarit Deshe, the Health Ministry official in charge of developing the app, and is the result of the use of Bluetooth technology. “The large number of screens is the product of a desire for transparency vis-à-vis the users. They need to be given an explanation regarding every operation that the users are giving permission for,” she said, adding that the registration process will be simplified next week.
According to Health Ministry figures, of the 483,000 Israelis who were ordered into quarantine in July due to concern that they may have been infected with the virus, 281,000 were identified by the Shin Bet. Another 83,000 were identified through contact tracing and 116,000 reported contact with a coronavirus carrier on their own.
There has been some criticism of the use of the Shin Bet security services to track the whereabouts of citizens under these circumstances, as they are not suspected of criminal activity. Concern has also been expressed that people have been mistakenly ordered to quarantine. The Shin Bet director, Nadav Argaman, has expressed his own reservations about its use.
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At the beginning of Monday’s Knesset committee session, Hauser and Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish of Likud went head-to-head over a proposal to shorten the quarantine period of those who come in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 carrier. “You’ve been mulling this over for a month and a half and aren’t shortening the number of days of quarantine,” Hauser told Kish, in an apparent reference to the Health Ministry as a whole. “What are you waiting for? What are you doing so that half a million people don’t sit at home in quarantine for an unnecessary time? We can’t wait any longer.”
“I can also be populist,” Kish responded, “and ask why you didn’t give us this [Shin Bet tracking] tool when we needed it? It’s an effective tool.”
Shortening the quarantine period (currently 14 days from the last contact with the carrier) would constitute a break from policy everywhere else in the world, Kish said, to which Hauser replied that Israel is also the only country in the world that is using a covert security agency to track carriers. “The consideration is not only health. Sit in a coronavirus cabinet meeting and balance the recommendations of the [professional] team dealing with the virus vs. the economic damage. Balance the economic damage vs. the infringement on the freedom of the individual. Eight hundred thousand work days have been wiped out because people have been quarantined,” Hauser said